"The enemies are in disarray
Ride them down as they run
Send them to their violent graves,
Don't spare anyone
Dead and wounded lie all around,
See the pain in their eyes
Over the field an eerie sound,
As we hear the ravens' cry." - Amon Amarth 'Cry of The Blackbirds'
Prologue - Charge of the Berserk
The wind whipped the smell of burning timber and carried the sound of distant battle to Drake Darkfire as he crouched on the secluded cliff side, watching the scene of chaos from too far away for his liking. A band of twenty soldiers crouched down in the foliage behind him, some Norn, some Human, even a few Char were present. Drake's mission was clear, he was to lead his band of raiders against the enemies' flank once the main army gave the signal. The waiting was worse than any wound he had ever endured.
Drake shifted his massive frame to make room for Stalos as he heard him approach. Stalos was slightly shorter than Drake, though he was wider and not as lean; a testament to his guardian nature. Stalos crouched beside Drake, both of their eyes fixed on the besieged keep in the distance as another burning projectile tore across the sky, propelled by one of the trebuchets in the main army's camp. Stalos nudged Drake, "How long until the signal you think?"
Drake stood and rested his right hand on the crosstrees of the massive greatsword that stood buried in the ground beside him. "The keep already burns...Soon Dary will march the main force against the enemy. Then, whether they flee or stand their ground, we will make our charge and claim our glory."
The enemy rushed to extinguish the fires that licked up and down their keep walls, but Drake could see that the wall closest to their position was close to falling. When would the army march on the keep though? Drake's icy eyes widened in anticipation as a piece of the burning wall fell away; that would be their entrance. Drake pulled the massive blade free and rested it on his broad shoulders then turned to address his raiders, "Gather your strength, your rage, your will to dominate. Bury your fears for they will serve you not on this battlefield. Now come! We charge for the glory of Dawn Eternal!" Drake turned swiftly and bounded down the hillside with Stalos close at his side, the emboldened battle cries of the raiders trailing him as they followed his lead.
As Drake reached the bottom of the hillside he saw a bright burst of blue light shooting upwards from the main army's camp far to his left; Dary's signal to the raiders. Drake grinned slightly at the thought of the verbal ass kicking he was going to receive from her later for charging early. The raiders closed with the keep, the wall had burned significantly and there was now a hole large enough for two Norns to enter side by side, which is exactly what Drake and Stalos did. The first enemy soldier turned in time to see the gleaming blade of Drake's greatsword crashing down at his skull, then he saw nothing else. The raiders flooded into the chaotic mess that was the keep's courtyard; the main army had advanced and the main gate was splintering under their assault, because of this the enemy was massed, anticipating Dary's troops' push. The raiders descended on their flank as Drake and Stalos dashed upwards and onto the battlements to deal with what remained of the enemy's archers and mages. Fear mingled delightfully with alarm as the first of the mages saw the two Norns charging towards him upon the narrow battlement. A panicked blast of fire streaked towards them and splashed harmlessly upon the barrier of force that Stalos maintained; the mage's hope was dashed as quickly as his skull was beneath Stalos' battle hammer.
By this time the already chaotic keep had erupted into a pure and utter storm of carnage; the main army had broken through the gate and were engaging what remained of the enemy force in the courtyard while those that attempted to flee the death trap were cut down or incinerated by the group of raiders. Drake stormed forward upon the battlements, his eyes wide as his massive blade flashed in the sun, cutting through enemies as they attempted to flee his wrath on the narrow walkway. Blood splashed the face of the grinning slayer as he pushed himself harder, chasing down the one remaining archer as he ran hard for the ramp down to the rear area of the keep. There, at the bottom of the ramp, to the archer's horror, stood Stalos with an illuminated line of energy drawn on the ground in front of him. His battle hammer gripped in one hand at his side, Stalos held a large staff in his other hand, it's end still buried in the ground at one end of the mystical barrier. The archer reached the barrier and could go no further, only look on at the grim face of Stalos as he stared back and then moved his gaze beyond the archer to the charging berserker at his back. The enemy archer turned in time to see the ice blue eyes of Drake Darkfire burning bright behind his dark, wild hair. Drake swung his giant sword in a wide arc and with such force that the wind itself seemed to be severed as it whistled around the blade. The whistling wind gave way to the sound of crunching bones and tearing flesh as the enemy archer was caught between Drake's vicious attack and the invisible barrier, it was almost enough to make Stalos flinch in disgust as he watched from the other side...almost.
Stalos dropped the barrier and stood beside Drake as he brought his greatsword up to rest on his shoulder. They looked out on the gathered forces of Dawn Eternal as Dary appeared from within the keep lord's quarters, an object gripped tightly in her right hand. It was the lord's head. A great victory cry rose from all assembled as Dary held the severed head aloft and claimed the keep for Dawn Eternal. Drake and Stalos began walking down the ramp towards the rest of the army and Drake thought to himself how far Dawn Eternal had come, how much they had grown. Drake thought back to the beginning, to days long past...
A world of demons wait
Watching the movements and filling my heart with hate
You're burning, so will I
When I awake and discover how I have been ravaged by your world..." - Disturbed 'Haunted'
I - Hunter of Shadows
The dark of the forest was suffocating. Even during the daylight hours, any shred of sunlight seemed to be drawn deep within the trees and smote with an otherworldly diligence. It had been near on two months since the last patrol had entered the woods never to be seen or heard from again. Much discussion and argument had taken place within the upper ranks of the Divinity's Reach military on whether or not to send an additional force to ascertain the patrol's fate. Three knights had been involved with the patrol and it was suspected that perhaps they were ambushed by Charr rebels or Centaur outriders and were now being held hostage in some hidden camp within the woods. Still, there were the more superstitious who swore that the forest was cursed or haunted and that the patrol was lost and should be forgotten. Now, riding slowly within the crushing darkness all around him, Dule Palacost began to think that the latter may have been correct. Despite the group of roughly twenty fully armored soldiers who rode with him on this mission, he couldn't help but feel as though not everything was as it seemed and he didn't suspect it was the Charr causing this uneasiness.
Dule Palacost was a noble born man of twenty four years, raised his whole life with either a sword or a lance in his hands. He was but a boy of sixteen years when he was knighted and took his holy vows in the name of The Six. Dule stood nearly a head taller than most men and had the muscular build of a knight accustomed to wearing heavy plate armor and swinging a greatsword at the enemies of his queen. His armor was elaborate smoky silver plate with etched veins of dark ebony skittering across its surface, a long, heavy black cloak of griffon feather and silk trailed behind him on his mount. He wore no helmet, revealing a handsome, lightly whiskered face with close cropped brown hair and piercing eyes of brilliant green.
The column advanced at a cautious pace along the lone road through the forest, yet they had not seen one sign of life since first entering the cursed wood. Suddenly a private Dule knew as Markus ran ahead of the column and stooped along the side of the trail. "Column, halt!" Shouted a captain as Dule dismounted and made his way slowly towards Markus' location. As he drew closer Dule made out the object that the private was inspecting; it was a shield emblazoned with the sigil of Divinity's Reach and it was sundered apart.
Markus' voice stuttered with fear, "Wha-What could do this...?" The private was staring with wide eyes where the shield had been sundered apart and the edges were now saturated with a strange, ghastly black substance.
Dule frowned, "Keep your wits about you, private. Whatever did this may still be lurking in these woods." Dule raised his eyes from the fallen shield and felt a stab of shock within his chest as his vision adjusted to the blanketing darkness of the deep forest. Scattered about the forest floor mere feet from the trail were the remnants of hauberks, greaves, shields and swords all cleaved and decaying with the same black filth. "What in Grenth's name..." Dule breathed. At the same moment Dule heard a muffled, wet sound from behind him. Markus' eyes were wide with surprise as Dule turned, his mouth moving incoherently. It took a moment for Dule to notice the form that was now standing directly behind the private as if it had appeared from the darkness itself. The form was entirely black and shaped as a human would be but there were no features save the deep red pools where the eyes would be. A black, pointed limb was now sticking through the private's lower throat, a steady stream of blood coursing it's way down his chainmail shirt. Markus' choking form was shoved forward to the ground as the shape withdrew the limb and it reverted to the shape of a human arm.
All of this happened in the span of only a few seconds but Dule felt as if he was frozen in place for an eternity. His hand found the hilt of the longsword at his side as he cried, "To arms! Defend the column!" Chaos erupted as several more of the shadow fiends descended from the blackness upon the group of soldiers. Dule's squire yelled something at him but he was drowned out by the screams of dying men and the blood pounding in the knight's temples. Dule's first strike caught the creature above the neck and he was surprised to see the fiend's head topple from its shoulders, half expecting his blade to find naught but empty air. With a swift kick the knight sent the shadow's corpse to the dirt as he charged for his rampaging mount. The great black charger was bucking and kicking at anything that came near it, driven mad by the presence of the shadow creatures. Dule dodged the charger's kicks as he got close enough to seize the hilt of his greatsword where it hung from the saddle. The knight drew the massive, mirrored blade and in the same movement swung it at a fiend that was ravaging the now still body of a soldier, cleaving it in twain.
Dule advanced through the melee making his way to the center of the column, attacking any fiends that were within striking distance and pulling any fallen soldiers to their feet that had not yet gone to join Grenth. "Rally to me! Drive them back to the darkness!" Dule hefted his greatsword as the surviving soldiers gathered, their backs to each other and their swords toward the enemy. With a grunt, the knight drove his blade into the ground and in a flash a great translucent barrier surrounded the survivors. A fiend tested the barrier and pulled back a sizzling claw. Dule's head fell back, eyes gazing skyward as his teeth gritted with effort. "In the name of Kormir, goddess of order, spirit and truth, I demand you return to whatever hell you spawned from!" The knight's eyes began glowing a blinding white as he growled and ripped the greatsword free from the dark earth, "Begone!" A torrent of white light illuminated the dense forest as it poured outward from Dule Palacost and wiped away any trace of the shadow fiends, leaving only a faint and quickly dissipating supernatural howl.
Dule let the blade fall to the ground, hilt still gripped firmly in his hand as he took a knee to catch his breath. Nine soldiers including the captain remained among the living. The rest lay scattered about the trail in different stages of mutilation, Dule's own squire among them. "Lord Palacost, what in the names of The Six were those!?" The captain clutched his broken sword arm as he struggled to gain his balance. "It was as if they were born from the darkness itself..."
"You know as much as I, captain." Dule replied without looking at him. "Gather your men. It's safe to say that we have found what claimed the patrol." The knight rose and looked the captain in the eyes. "We have much to report to Divinity's Reach. Quickly now!"
((To be continued...))